By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 30, 2019 at 08:30 AM EDT
Eric Kieu; Penguin

With her debut novel The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang quickly established herself as an author to watch.

Published last June, the romance — which follows an autistic woman named Stella who hires an escort to help her get comfortable with intimacy — became a 2018 hit, making best-of-the-year lists and landing a movie deal.

The Kiss Quotient was not only an inspiring, heartwarming love story that she described as a reverse Pretty Woman, it also came with Hoang’s own compelling personal attachment to the tale: the fact that Stella’s neurodivergence helped Hoang make discoveries about herself and find answers she’d craved her entire life.

Now the author is back with an equally personal tale in The Bride Test. Here, her hero, Khai Diep, cousin to The Kiss Quotient’s Michael, is autistic — a young man who believes he has no feelings because of the stereotypes surrounding autism that have worn him down. Again, Hoang drew on her personal experiences and thoughts on the complicated emotionality of autism. “I would love for someone on the spectrum to read this book and to feel validated that they are emotional,” she tells EW. “That they are kind. That they have feelings.”

Even more personally, Hoang turned to another member of her family, her mother, a Vietnamese refugee, to craft her heroine, Esme Tran, a young woman who agrees to an arranged marriage for the chance at a better life for her family and finds love in the process. Though the story is set in the present day, Hoang based Esme’s journey on her mother’s story and the wells of inner strength it takes to create a new life for yourself in a strange and often unwelcoming place.

Ahead of the May 7 release of The Bride Test, EW caught up with Hoang to learn more about her mother’s impact on this book, why she wanted Khai to be her hero, and what pithy rom-com pitch she can attribute to her rich storytelling this go-around.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of how Stella helped you make discoveries about yourself is so remarkable. In this case, Khai is your autistic character: Did you have to do different research or reach a different understanding of his neurodivergence, since it can be different for women and men?
HELEN HOANG: From the outside autism looks different between men and women, but I believe that on the inside it’s very similar. The main difference is that women have learned to mask their autistic traits better to fit in better with their peers for whatever reasons — be they society, or maybe there’s a genetic tendency. I don’t know. When I wrote Khai, I basically wrote an autistic woman but I took away the desire and the ability to mask his autism, so I think that’s the main difference. At least from what I’ve seen.

You created such a rich world in The Kiss Quotient. Why was Khai’s love story the next one you felt compelled to tell?
While I was researching autism, I ran across this website online, and they basically [said] that autistic people are heartless. That we don’t feel emotions and we can’t experience empathy. That made me really angry. Because it’s not true. It might look true sometimes. But it’s really not. A lot of the autistic people I’ve interacted with are the kindest, most considerate people I know. Khai was born from that feeling of injustice. I wanted to tell that story because it’s a pretty common stereotype for autistic people that we don’t have feelings, and I wanted to show how damaging it is to continue that and how bad it is when we ourselves believe that. I’ve gotten letters from parents saying that they worry because their children believe that about themselves, and it’s really heartbreaking to me. Another part of why I wanted to write Khai is that’s a journey that I’ve been going on throughout my life. When I was younger, I was told I have a stone heart. So many of those things are taken directly from my life, and I wanted to share that through him.

You write so beautifully of how your mom gave birth to Esme’s story in the author’s note. Can you tell us more about that?
Growing up, my mom told us her refugee story so many times. How she escaped from Vietnam by getting on the boats and the bombs were falling and everyone was terrified. There was a long trip and everyone was packed like sardines. I heard that story a lot. She made it sound like that was the hardest part, that was the most challenging part of being a refugee. But there’s an entire other side to her story. Escaping from Vietnam is a huge. It takes a massive amount of bravery, but starting over in a foreign country with a foreign language with no money with everyone depending on you, with racism and sexism, that’s something else entirely. That’s something that she never spoke to me about. I think she did that because she was protecting me. She wanted me to stay innocent. All I saw was her accomplishments, and I thought it was easy — that it was easy to be an immigrant and start over in a place that isn’t entirely kind to you. With this book, I wanted to illustrate that missing part of the story that she didn’t tell me, because it’s important and it might be even harder than escaping from Vietnam.

A lot of Esme’s story came directly from conversations with your mom?
A lot of them. Not entirely, because it did have to modernize. Esme isn’t a war refugee, but I definitely tried to bring as much of that experience of first coming to a country and trying to assimilate and being confused.

I know you recently lost your mom. In the wake of that, has The Bride Test taken on even more resonance and importance for you?
In my head, this book has become my mom’s book. The cover [is] yellow and red. I’m really proud to have those colors on the cover because they’re deeply Vietnamese. As much as [my mom] loves America, she loved her homeland too, even though she didn’t agree with the politics. Looking at the book reminds me of her. It reminds me of how strong she was and how much she loved all of her kids. It brings me back to those conversations I had with her while I was drafting the book. She talked to me about what it’s like to be poor in Vietnam and about what it was like when she first came to the U.S. The first time someone offered her breakfast cereal, and she had no idea what it was. She worked 19 hours a day, but she had that drive because she wanted to take care of her family and she wanted to prove herself. I can remember all that when I look at this book. I’m hoping over time, it will erase the memory of what she was like at the end, and then I will only see the good parts.

For so many, The Kiss Quotient gave readers empathetic insight into what it’s like for someone on the spectrum. Certainly Khai still fills that need, but do you hope or intend for the novel to do the same for the Vietnamese immigrant experience?
I would love for the book to provide some insight into that. I honestly did my best. But I admit that I’m constrained by my lack of personal experience because I’m not an immigrant. I’ve never been poor like my mom, and so when I was writing this book I felt that lack. I felt it very keenly. I know that if I’d lived this experience that I could’ve brought so much more depth and nuance to the story and to the character. I would love to see new voices rise and share these stories from a more authentic perspective.

As you were writing, the nation’s stance on immigration has become intensely volatile and troubling — did that impact your story at all or make it difficult or more pressing to write?
Around the time that I finished writing The Kiss Quotient was when our new president was elected, and that was a fiery moment for me. Shocking. And then there was the Muslim ban and all these things. I wrote this book with a fire in my heart. I wanted badly to humanize immigrants. I know that it’s a controversial topic, that people are coming into the country illegally. I know that that is wrong, but I think it’s important to look at people as people and not as numbers on paper or as statistics. They will give visas to people with certain qualifications — skills, education, or if they’re very wealthy. When you judge a person based on those criteria, it’s guaranteed you’re going to miss out.

How do you feel about the fact that your work has sort of transcended genre in a sense? I talk to so many people who aren’t romance readers who just delight in your writing.
I’m extremely honored by that. I love romance. I’m proud if I can introduce people to romance. But mostly I’m just grateful when anyone reads my books.

We get more glimpses of fan-favorite character Quan here — he’s next, right?
Yes. Quan is next. That’s the book I’m writing now, and I’m trying really hard to give him a story that is worthy of him because I just love him to pieces. It’s called The Heart Principle. It is kind of a cross between a gender-swapped Sabrina and Say Anything.

You often described The Kiss Quotient as a reverse Pretty Woman. Do you have something equally as pithy for The Bride Test?
Green Card meets Four Weddings and a Funeral — but with autism.

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